Early Self-Help: Douglas Fairbanks’ “Laugh and Live”
We’ve long sought to improve our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual selves, and advisers have always arrived on the scene to show us the way. When the student is ready, the teacher appears, right? But we don’t need to read very far in the one of the oldest books around to discover that all advice is not created equal.
Early in Genesis, the serpent sold Adam & Eve on his 1-Step Process to Self-Improvement, and we know how that turned out.
In the centuries since, a wide variety of experts — doctors, theologians, teachers, philosophers, psychologists — have continued to weigh in. In the early twentieth century, our quest for self-improvement began to intersect with the growing cult of personality, and a new sort of expert came on the scene…the celebrity life coach.
In 1917, motion pictures were the entertainment medium of choice, Hollywood was the center of the motion picture universe, and Douglas Fairbanks was King of Hollywood. Known for his confident, dashing swagger and energetic personality on and off camera, and admired by men and women alike, Fairbanks was a natural “celebrity life coach.”
Laugh and Live was published in April of that year, and quickly went into multiple printings.
In chapters titled “Taking Stock of Ourselves,” “Building Up a Personality,” “Honesty, the Character Builder” and others, Fairbanks offers advice which is equal parts positive thinking, common sense and self-determination, and emphatic italics abound throughout.
In all fairness, before we dismiss Laugh and Live as cliched and derivative, it must be noted that it was published nearly twenty years before Dale Carnegie’s wildly influential How to Win Friends and Influence People, and at least some of his concepts may have been fresh to his contemporary readers.
Fairbanks establishes his heavily italicized and hyphenated philosophy from the top of chapter one, “Whistle and Hoe — Sing As We Go”:
“There is one thing in this good old world that is positively sure — happiness is for all who strive to be happy — and those who laugh are happy. Everybody is eligible — you — me — the other fellow. Happiness is fundamentally a state of mind — not a state of body. And mind controls.”
In a chapter on the “Cleanliness of Body and Mind,” he addresses the topic of success, using repetition and italics to drive home his point:
“‘Nothing succeeds like success,’ said some very wise man and if there ever was a phrase that rang with truth this does. It means that the thought of success, the courage that comes with success, leads to more and more success.”
Here are a few other examples of his Laugh and Live philosophy:
“One of the distinctive elements in the honest man’s makeup is that of laughter. The ones who live up to their ideals, do not feel that life is such a dark place after all. It may mean hard work, little play and often delayed rewards but the fact that there is a world, and that it is filled with other honest souls is reward enough to give us courage to laugh as we go along. We can always afford to laugh — when we’re honest.“
“…the successful man, the man who wishes to rise in life, should not spend his days in the company of illiterate companions who do not posses ambition of heart or the will to do the work of the world.”
“We must make our own opportunities otherwise we are children of circumstance. What becomes of us is a matter of guesswork. We have no hand in compelling our own future. Diffidence is a species of cowardice. It causes a man’s courage to ooze out at his toes faster than it comes into his heart. Such men often have big ideas, but having no confidence in themselves they lack the power to compel confidence in others.”
Fairbanks concludes on a personal note, ensuring his readers that he lives up “to my own prescription.”
“I do — and it’s easy!
“I have kept myself happy and well through keeping my physical department in first class order…Fresh air is my intoxicant — and it keeps me in high spirits. My system doesn’t crave artificial stimulation because my daily exercise quickens the blood sufficiently. Then, too, I manage to keep busy. That’s the real elixir – activity! Not always physical activity either, for I must read good books in order to exercise my mind in other channels than just my daily routine — and add to my store of knowledge as well.
“Then there is my inner-self which must have attention now and then. For this a little solitude is helpful. We have only to sense the phenomena surrounding us to know that we must have a working faith — something practical to live by, which automatically keeps us on our course. The mystery of life somehow loses its density if we retain our spark of hope.”
Before the book switches over to a short biography of the author (a reprint of an Everybody’s Magazine profile by George Creel), Fairbanks concludes with the “wonderful words of admonition from Polonius in his farewell speech to his son Laertes” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which in turn end with “This above all–to thine ownself be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
It’s a philosophy Fairbanks clearly adopted, and embraced to the end of his life.
Fairbanks wrote Laugh and Live shortly after he began an affair with Mary Pickford, an all too public relationship which led to his divorce in 1919 (he’d married Anna Beth Sully, the mother of Douglas Jr., in 1907). He and Pickford married in 1920, and they reigned as Hollywood royalty from their elaborate Pickfair estate into the early 1930s. The couple divorced in 1936, and Fairbanks died of a heart attack in his sleep in 1939 at age 56.
Laugh and Live lives on as a complete Google book, and at least one enterprising marketeer (no doubt encouraged by the book’s “public domain” status) continues to offer the “amazing material” as a way to “gain immediate success tomorrow” for a mere $19.97!
Perhaps Douglas Fairbanks’ days as a celebrity life coach aren’t over after all.